2020 Toyota Avalon Road Trip Scottsdale To Jerome By Steve Purdy
We Test the New Car and Shoot Old Trucks by the Dozen
By Steve Purdy and Mojave Moses
© Shunpiker Productions
For: The Auto Channel
The sun is just up glowing over my left shoulder as I cross I-17 on Carefree Highway just north of Phoenix and pass the last traffic signal. It took nearly an hour to break away from the oppressive suburban environment of Scottsdale and out into the open spaces of the Sonoran Desert. I’m headed due west on AZ Highway 74 - the back way to Prescott. My mission this day is to pick up my accomplice, Mojave Moses, at his mountain-side home and studio then head out on a day trip to Jerome for a special photo shoot and aesthetic tour we’ve been planning.
Mojave Moses is an artist, designer and desert guide. Regular readers will have seen other stories we’ve done together from the desert southwest. He and I are arguably the demographic for this Toyota Avalon TRD, our steed for the day. That is, we’re boomers for whom our automobiles are more than just transportation.
Our friends at Toyota graciously offered the Avalon TRD for this road trip story when I commented to them at a recent event how incongruous it seemed to me that the TRD treatment would be applied to the Avalon, a full-size sedan with a long standing, well-earned reputation as being a car for old folks. The Toyota Racing Division, after all, is the company’s “in-house tuning shop.” Being now diversified well beyond their core racing mission they’re also responsible for tuning up and dressing up other Toyotas. In this case they were tasked with massaging what started as a tepid, sedate sedan into a flashy, performance-oriented sport sedan.
That long stretch of AZ 74, a well-maintained, modern two-lane, passes through stands of majestic saguaro scattered among diverse flora unique to the Sonoran Desert. All was aglow in the soft morning sun. I have the road mostly to myself so it’s time to assess the power and performance of the 301-hp V-6 with quick-shifting 8-speed automatic transmission - the standard Avalon powertrain. It has plenty of grunt and sophistication to satisfy all but the most demanding enthusiast and still the EPA says we can expect around 25 mpg on the highway. We can downshift with the accelerator, paddle shifters or the gated floor shifter. You can put your foot in it and run through the gears right up to the 7,000-rpm redline with a thoroughly modern and sophisticated sound and feel. At the risk of self-incrimination, I’ll admit to some extra-legal speeds, but just enough to satisfy me of her stability and straight-line dynamics. Both excellent.
Highway 74 joins US 60 before passing through Wickenburg where we catch SR 93, the road to Williams. The most fun begins, though, at our next right turn where AZ 89, breaks off to the northeast, crossing two small mountains before entering the sprawl of Prescott and Prescott Valley. It is about 35 miles of twists and turns, swerves and swales, passing through a few rustic settlements.
The morning sun was now on my right lighting the fantasy landscapes of the desert, now interspaced with some grassy meadows as our elevation rises. We’re not far east of the demarcation between the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts where ecosystems change, particularly with elevation.
Knowing that Mojave Moses would not be comfortable as a passenger at the pace I’ll be driving (nor would I with anyone else at the wheel) to evaluate the dynamics of what the Toyota suspension engineers have wrought., I’ll explore those characteristics now before I pick him up. The car’s specs tout sportier suspension tuning, bigger brakes and some extra chassis bracing. We’ll see if I can feel them.
Again, I had the road mostly to myself this early weekday morning. The first mountain crossing boasts two lanes each direction divided widely by the contours of the slope. Vistas that nearly bring tears to the eyes of this Midwestern flatlander jump out intermittently. Once over that mountain we find rolling, rocky, dry grasslands and a few ranches. To my right young horses, back-lit by the sun, frolic in a large corral,. By the time I stop and get out the camera they had all gathered at the trough with their heads down. Bummer.
The second major crossing, a shoulderless two-lane through the Pondarosa pine forests and the rocks of the Bradshaw Mountains offers more limited vistas meaning less visual distractions. Both crossings have major stretches where we put the transmission in second gear using the paddles behind the steering wheel, or with the gated floor shifter, hold it there and push through as spiritedly as we like.
The verdict is good. We feel the firmer, more controlled suspension, better for sure than the unembellished Avalon. We don’t challenge the brakes to their limit, of course, nor should you unless you’re on a race course. It still leans a bit but certainly less than the regular Avalon. After all it’s still a big sedan. I would give the Toyota engineers a solid, honorable B+. for their integration of performance driving dynamics into this main-stream sedan.
Mojave Moses was puttering in his work space when I arrived mid-morning. It took not long to pack some snacks and head out toward AZ 89A, the road to Jerome along Mingus Mountain rising to 7,000 feet at the pass. This section of road between Prescott and Jerome is famous, especially among automobile enthusiasts and marketers, as one of the most scenic, challenging and photogenic stretches of road in the country. That’s where we’ll consider the Avalon TRD’s aesthetics, ergonomics and comfort.
We stop a few times to examine the car and assess its look and feel. I’ve noticed here and during the rest of our time with the around Scottsdale, it attracted more admiring glances than you would expect an Avalon to elicit. In fact, a jogger at one of the nature reserves paused to rave about the looks of the car. In addition to its vibrant red paint the Toyota design team embellished it with lower body cladding, trunk spoiler and grill, all of glossy piano-black. The garish, gaping, front fascia with squinty headlights give it a menacing face. From the side view it looks way lower than you’d expect and its stance, with 19-inch flat black wheels and wide tires, will inspire many a second look.
A broad view of the expansive Verde Valley greets us at the last pull-off before Jerome. We can see the gap in the red rocks of Sedona about 25 miles to the northeast where Oak Creek flows out into the desert valley.
Passing through the switch-back streets of Jerome, a wonderful old copper mining town brought back to life as a tourist village, we turn off at the fire station onto Perkinsville road carved into the mountain side to the northwest. Our destination is the Gold King Mine, site of an old guy’s eclectic collection of old stuff including about 15 acres of rusty old trucks and equipment. Some look like they could run. Most are dead, but certainly not gone.
We love ‘em rusty ol’ trucks: me as a photographer, Mojave Moses as an artist. We spend much of our afternoon soaking up the ambiance of this reinterpretation of mining-town culture and some of the equipment that made it possible. A variety of colorful patinas develop out of rust and layers of paint. Compositions of shape, form and texture present themselves for consideration as we explore these historic hulks.
Now, how about the Avalon’s traditional audience: old folks who like to be able to pile some of their friends into the back seat on the way to the early-bird special at the family restaurant in town; or want room for a couple sets of golf clubs in the trunk, or, want that feeling of having a big vehicle around them so they could hold their own in a crash or . . . what else?
Well, the Avalon is still big, comfortable, has grab handles even above the driver’s door, has a good back seat, is smooth and quiet (though the TRD makes a nice bit of controlled rumble), and it is as dependable as any Toyota.
A drawback of the Avalon, in our boomer-esque opinion, is the imposition of what some of our auto-writer colleagues call “nanny” functions, like Lane Departure Assist which gently tries to push you back into your lane if you stray, or don’t use your signal to change lanes. I also triggered the “Please take a break!” message with coffee cup icon in front of the speedo when I touched the lines too much challenging the twisty mountain roads. It thought I was too tired to drive, but it was wrong. And, we can’t lock the doors until all are closed. I’ll not list others because most are just niggles and we’re now just exercising our inner curmudgeon.
Our loaded test car shows a sticker price of just over 46-grand including optional premium audio with nav and apps, plus a few lesser options. Base price for the Avalon TRD shows $42,300, and that includes all the enhancements referenced above. Compare that to other near-luxury, large, sporty sedans focused on speed, handling, comfort and panache. You’ll find it’s half the price of some.
So, is it really incongruous? Is it an anomaly? Is it superfluous?
Not at all, not at all, not at all.
It’s a competent, good-lookin’, reasonably-priced sporty car focused on our demographic – us old guys and gals who like a little panache with their comfort and convenience.